Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new
restaurant merits the scorching hype? The answer to all these questions
and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 AM on Kliman Online.
From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of
four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the ‘burbs and exurbs to hitting the
city’s streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.
Winner of a James
Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country’s best newspaper column
about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Oxford American, Lucky Peach, The Daily Beast and Men’s Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies. He was a finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, and recently took home first-place honors for feature writing from the Association of Food Journalists.
Kliman is the author of The Wild Vine,
a literary exploration of two entwined mysteries: an obscure grape that
rose to prominence, only to disappear, and its present-day evangelist, a
foul-mouthed transgendered multi-millionaire vintner on an obsessive
quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.
Todd previously taught writing and literature at American University and Howard University. At Howard, he was also the editorial advisor to The Illtop Journal, Chris Rock’s humor magazine modeled after the Harvard Lampoon.
Can’t wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world. Or write to him: firstname.lastname@example.org
POSTCARD FROM … BALTIMORE:
With my wife running in the Baltimore half-marathon on Saturday, we took a couple of nights in the city and revisited some old favorites from our days living there.
The Helmand remains excellent — better than I remembered, honestly, and also an insane value. They’ve started charging for the bread, which is a bummer, but other than that prices are almost where I remember them from years ago. I tried a new dish, braised lamb and radishes in a gingery sauce, which was fascinating — spikier than most Afghan food I’ve had, with the ginger — but characteristically delicious. And the traditional can’t-miss dishes (kaddo borawni, aushak, spinach, etc.) remain exemplary.
While my wife burned calories the next morning, I packed them on with my annual breakfast burrito at Pop Tacos in Cross Street Market. The fresh scrambled eggs and fresh-made salsas are great, but it’s the addition of deep fried tater tots that’s the gamechanger here. Great trick, and one which I’ve co-opted for home use.
Post-race, we hit the Oyster Festival outside of Ryleigh’s Oyster in Fed Hill. Buck-a-shuck is tough to argue with in general, but the standout for me was the Avery’s Pearl oyster, which is apparently Ryleigh’s signature shuck. It is plump and ridiculously briny — my wife described it as “tasting like falling off a boogie board” — which made it a really good pairing for a couple of beers and some live music outside.
To celebrate the run (and my wife’s birthday), dinner was at Woodberry Kitchen. It’s our favorite restaurant in the area and nothing we had on Saturday changed that opinion. Standouts included steamed clams (heavy on the lemongrass); crisp, clean-tasting fried chicken livers; the cheese tortellini that inexplicably accompanied a braised beef shank; beet ice cream. On the other hand, it was our first time noticing a couple of minor mis-steps there: a snack of roasted sweet peppers was fine but generally unremarkable; a “fresh cheese curd” flatbread that was a perfectly good spicy broccoli white pizza but nothing more. But it’s a pretty good sign when even the restaurant’s off-notes get eaten and enjoyed.
Sunday brunch was another old favorite: Greg’s Bagels in the Belvedere Square market. I could make a strong last-meal-on-earth argument for their bagel with cream cheese and Moroccan spiced cold-smoked salmon, with apricot puree on the side to be spread on to taste. Their bagels are small and pleasantly dense, and do a good job supporting their toppings, both normal (a slightly boozy gravlax) and more … esoteric (shredded duck confit and apricot-chipotle chutney). And dealing with their traditionally idiosyncratic service was like coming home, an appropriate end to a nostalgia-heavy weekend.
Thank you so much for this terrific postcard, Matt.
You clearly ate wonderfully well, and it’s a pleasure to relive your adventures through your good descriptions.
Tater tots in a breakfast burrito — can’t quite picture it, but I trust you. I’ll have to investigate. And thanks for the reminder about Greg’s; I’ve been meaning to get there for a while, now. Ryleigh’s Oyster sounds like a fun place; it’s also going on my list for my next trip up.
Good morning, everyone. Gorgeous day, and I hope you’re enjoying it, wherever you happen to be.
What’s on your mind?
Where have you eaten that’s knocked your socks off?
Or, alternatively — what’s bugging you?
JUDGMENT CALL: ON HONORING A SPECIAL OCCASION:
If my wife or my birthdays are during the week we go out for a fancy celebration dinner over the weekend and a casual dinner with our teenaged kids. When I make a reservation using Opentable or CityEats I mention if it is someone’s birthday.
This year for my wife’s 50th, we went to Ashby Inn which was wonderful. To make the occasion even more special they wished her a happy birthday when she sat done and brought us birthday chocolates at the end – which was a very nice if simple touch.
On the day of her actual birthday we went to Kapnos. They did nothing and said nothing. While it was busy when we left, when we arrived it was pretty empty. As we left, we were asked how everything was. I said that while the food was very good, I was disappointed that they ignored her 50th birthday. They said sorry but didn’t really seem to care.
While I understand that they don’t want to give out free food, I do think that they could afford to give a free dessert on a bill of $186 before tip. More importantly, we did order dessert and they could have added a candle for 50 cents and a “Happy Birthday” is absolutely free. Restaurants should remember that if it was not for the birthday, we would not be in their place spending any money in the first place.
Shouldn’t they review all the of the night’s reservations at the start of the evening to look for the “special messages” that we are invited to add to our reservations? I would appreciate your view on this. If I am being unreasonable please let me know.
I have a feeling this is going to open a lot of discussion …
If I were to tell a place, when making a reservation, that it’s a special occasion, and the place were to ignore it, I would feel … I don’t know. Kind of ridiculous. Exposed. I would certainly feel not taken care of, which is what good restaurants say they are in the business of doing.
The free dessert … it doesn’t have to be a free dessert, though I agree with you that that’s what the expectation is; this is how restaurants over the years have decided to make someone feel honored on their birthday; it’s part of the culture.
Why surrender the information that this is an important occasion if the restaurant has no intention of doing something special?
I do think there are other ways to single someone out. Would a few congratulatory words when you sat down, and then another few before you left the table have made you feel more welcomed? I think a lot of us would accept that. Though chocolates don’t hurt. ; )
What do you say out there?
Is this a case of special pleading, or is there a legitimate reason to feel slighted?
WHEN IS IT APPROPRIATE TO SEND SOMETHING BACK?:
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this: Is it appropriate to send back fish that is overcooked?
Most servers don’t ask you what temperature you prefer your swordfish or salmon prepared, so I always feel a bit hesitant. But recently I’ve noticed an uptick in chefs cooking their fish way past it’s sweet spot. Just kills the flavor and the texture.
Am I just being persnickety if I ask for another portion? Have you encountered the same trend?
Some would say you’re being persnickety. I would say you’re being persnickety but with good reason, especially given the high cost of dining out in this area.
Remember: restaurants are in the hospitality business, and the server always comes around after the food has been delivered to ask you how everything is — presumably, because he or she wants to make sure you’re actually having a good meal.
So, yes, send it back.
If a restaurant is charging you $28 for salmon, then you should expect a piece of fish cooked the way you prefer it.
You can request your fish cooked medium or medium-rare, just as you would a steak. Most diners don’t know that, and most servers don’t mention it. But they will take down your request if you speak up. I’ve done it many times, and the vast majority of those dishes came out very close to what I asked for.
As to whether I’ve noticed an “uptick” in this tendency, no, not really. But fish is one of the hardest things for kitchens to get right. Consistently right.
It’s very hard to work with, and complicating things is that many diners don’t like medium-rare fish. Chefs know that that’s the sweet spot for many fishes. But many customers, seeing a fish cooked medium-rare, will say that it’s not done. They’ll be turned off by it. I’ve had this happen in my own home. Most people are used to flaky fish. They like flaky fish, or at least they accept it. It takes a certain kind of eater to appreciate a moist, juicy piece of fish.
PROOF — ANY NAVIGATIONAL TIPS?:
I am celebrating an anniversary at Proof tomorrow. I’ve been many times for drinks and meaty snacks, but never a proper meal.
Any tips on navigating a menu that is overflowing with dishes I would love to inhale?
Foie gras — a.), because there’s just not that many opportunities to order it around town anymore and 2.), because this is a good one. Seared and creamy, and I like the short cake it comes with, too, and the various cherry elements on the plate.
The flatbread, I think, is a must. It’s been on the menu since the place opened, and remains one of the best dishes here. Smoked eggplant, chickpeas, and red onion, and I love the crunch and saltiness of the flatbread itself.
Oh, and the buttercrunch salad — again, another mainstay. With avocado, grapefruit, and orange. It’s pretty perfect.
I would build around these, which means concentrating on smaller plates as opposed to bigger ones. I’d supplement with the crispy pig’s head and maybe the sweetbreads, and possibly order up a plate of pho terrine. With the ahi tuna tartare to provide a change-up from all that rich meat.
And plenty of red wine from that fabulous list.
Good luck, and happy anniversary to you both!
HONORING SPECIAL OCCASIONS, CONT.:
If a restaurant *wants* to help customers celebrate special occasions, fine, but it’s not the restaurant’s responsibility to do so. It simply shifts costs to those of us who would never consider making such a fuss over a private matter.
If someone wants a candle on a dessert, he or she should bring one and find an excuse to exit the table briefly to hand it to the waiter with appropriate instructions.
For me the issue is — why ask at all, then?
It’s not just an Open Table thing. Many high-end restaurants ask when you book a time with them — “will you be celebrating an occasion tonight?”
Implicit in the question is — we intend to do something about this.
It raises an expectation. And if that expectation isn’t fulfilled, then the diner is bruised.
The problem, here, for restaurants is that the expectation is, at a minimum, a comped dessert, and possibly with a candle or something spelled out on the rim of the plate.
HONORING SPECIAL OCCASIONS, CONT.:
I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I have also typed the special occasion into Open Table where they as for it many, many times and literally not once has the occasion ever been recognized by the restaurant. Apparently they don’t look at it…or don’t care.
I believe it.
I, myself, have over the years been asked, and been surprised when nothing at all happens.
Not that I or my people want it — many times they manifestly don’t want it — but to leave someone hanging, as we used to say?
Bad vibes, as we also used to say.
Re: CHINA BISTRO / MAMA’S DUMPLINGS — IN ROCKVILLE:
Do you know if there’s been any kind of ownership change at China Bistro/Mama’s Dumplings in Rockville?
I’ve noticed a lot of different faces on staff lately, and the last batch of dumplings I got seemed somehow different. Not worse, but slightly different.
Thanks for the heads-up. I’ll investigate, for sure.
Have you been to East Dumpling House, further south, near Rockville Town Center? I like but don’t love the dumplings — the skins are supple, if thick, but the fillings are on the bland side. But the tofu! Shredded, with cilantro — fantastic. Fried, with onions and peppers — also fantastic. And I like the wontons in chili oil, too. Lots of good cold dishes.
HONORING SPECIAL OCCASIONS, CONT.:
The wait staff at most restaurants hate bdays and special occasions. Its is a royal pain to round up folks to sing etc. I am sorry why does anyone deserve anything free to celebrate a bday or anniversary???
Also remember Kapnos is Greek and maybe just maybe giving a free dessert just isnt part of their culture for celebrating bdays. I just want a good meal with good service if I go out on my bday or our anniversary.
Sure, good restaurants hate birthdays and special occasions.
You know what else they hate?
They hate Valentine’s Day.
They hate Mother’s Day.
They hate what they refer to as “Amateur Night” — that is, Friday and Saturday nights, when the less-well-traveled and less food-obsessed (the uninformed, the unsophisticated) are out in great number.
They hate brunch.
They hate Restaurant Week.
I don’t think it much matters to consider what they hate. They have a job to do. And that job is to give the illusion that they are welcoming people into their home. To smile and indulge, and make sure people have good food and drink on the table.
Finally: I would argue that before Kapnos is a Greek restaurant, it is a trendy, high-end restaurant.
HONORING SPECIAL OCCASIONS, CONT.:
Just to share my experience/opinion on the special request issue. I don’t mind if a restaurant doesn’t ask about special events, but if they make a point to ask and do nothing, I care.
There is a specific restaurant that I absolutely love, except for this issue. They are very thorough in confirming reservations and also confirming any special info that you shared in your original reservation.
However on three separate occasions, I indicated that I was visiting for a special occasion. All three separate times the restaurant made no effort to even wish a happy birthday. It’s not a big deal, I don’t need free things. But if you’re going to ask and then confirm that we’re coming for a special occasion it’d at east be nice to acknowledge it at some point during the service. Needles to say I do not go to this establishment for special occasions any longer.
Thanks for chiming in …
I think you articulated the problem well, and most memorably when you wrote, “I don’t mind if a restaurant doesn’t ask about special events, but if they make a point to ask and do nothing, I care.”
I don’t think the issue is free things, either. Maybe for some, ok, but I think most of us are not going to be sent over the moon by a slice of cake.
I think it comes down to having the restaurant honor its promise in some way, and while cake would be nice, I tend to think that most of us would be content with a warm congratulatory greeting and a warm, congratulatory send-off.
POSTCARD FROM … COLUMBIA HEIGHTS:
The awful weekend weather wiped out my tee time Friday morning, but lunch at Mi Cuba Cafe saved the day.
The cheerfully colored rooms beat back the gloom of Park Road. The Spanglish conversation on the finer points of plantain frying was engaging. They first fry the sweet plantains at a low temperature, smash them flat on a tostones press, and then fry them for a second time at a higher temperature until the edges are crisp. Call it the pommes frites of plantains.
A hefty cubano, beautifully cut on a sharp bias and stuffed with pork and cheese had me booking an afternoon siesta. But first I lingered over an espresso sweetened with condensed milk, providing me with the fortitude to face the rains once again.
I’m so glad you got a chance to get over there.
I love their picadillo — a must-order for your next trip. It has the softness that so many other versions miss. And yeah, that Cubano. Good stuff, and so cheap, and such a nice spot.
Incidentally, Los Hermanos, a couple of doors down — another place to consider next time you’re in that part of town. Hearty homecooked Dominican food. I absolutely adore their yellow rice and pigeon peas.
Wondering if you could help me out w/ my NOLA dinner lineup. On my list, I have Brigtsens, Cochon, and Upperline. I need a fourth restaurant. What have you heard of Revolution? Or anything else that I can’t miss? Thanks!!
I’d make the fourth Sylvain.
I’ve read some great things about R’evolution, but I haven’t been, myself, so either trust what you’ve heard and go, or, if you’re looking for something simpler, hit up Sylvain, which is also in the French Quarter.
HONORING SPECIAL OCCASIONS, CONT.:
On birthdays…yes, I think it does matter.
We took a friend out to dinner at Majestic for her birthday (because sometimes, the only thing that will do is a gigantic piece of coconut cake). While our server was lacking some of the usual polish we’d expect from one of the Armstrong restaurants, he made up for it with an enthusiastic happy birthday when we sat down and dessert showed up with a candle and a “happy birthday” written on a piece of chocolate.
Nothing free, didn’t cost them anything, but left us with an overall pleasant feeling about the experience where otherwise we might have griped a little about the slowness of the meal and having to grab him to get drinks refilled. The little things contribute to a good dinner out overall, and remembering a birthday or otherwise making a minor fuss is part of the reason one goes out to celebrate.
Very, very well put. Thank you.
And I think you ended with a good point, something that restaurants may overlook. We don’t have to go out to celebrate. We can stay in and celebrate. We choose to go out to celebrate. Not just because it tends to be more festive in the company of other people in the room, but also because restaurants are places that (can) make very tasty food and serve very tasty beverages and (can) give us the sort of attention we might not get at home.
SEAFOOD AND DONE-NESS, CONT.:
I have the same problem with shrimp and scallops when I go out.
I prefer my scallops to come out medium rare so when they reach the table they are just perfect. Same with shrimp.
Nothing worse then over cooked scallops an d shrimp when you are paying big bucks for dayboat scallops and fresh shrimp
It’s throwing money down the drain.
And wasting a presumably good product.
Have you tried the different soup dumplings places in Rockville?
I think Bob’s Shanghai and Shanghai Taste are the best ones. But Bob’s is much larger and cleaner restaurant. I still think the best one is in Yank Sing in San Francisco.
Bob’s does a good job. I’ve enjoyed the soup dumplings there.
But I agree with you — Yank Sing is in a different category altogether. And not just for soup dumplings. A special, special place.
HONORING SPECIAL OCCASIONS, CONT.:
I’m planted in the other camp on this issue.
Whenever I’ve made reservations or had my husband make reservations for a special occasion for us electronically or on the telephone, I never mention what the occasion is, precisely for the reason that the restaurant might feel like they should try to do something special for us.
It’s not that I think the OP is wrong, it has more to do with how we present ourselves to the world, I think. I have never felt the need to call attention or announce myself or make my presence known. It’s just the way I operate. I know many people would do otherwise. I am not looking for handouts or special treatment. When I go somewhere, I want to be treated as they would treat anyone else – and hopefully, given they are in the hospitality industry – it would be positively. I guess the bottom line is that I feel no one owes me anything, just because…it’s my birthday…or my anniversary…or because I got a promotion…or because I…. If I’m going to be treated well, I hope it’s because that’s the face of the restaurant, the server – and that’s an experience they would recreate for every person, not just the ones celebrating birthdays and anniversaries.
I hear you.
Thanks for sharing your perspective.
I don’t disagree with you, and I can see why you’d avoid mentioning it altogether.
This is exactly how many people in my circle of family and friends feel. They find the free dessert thing to be cheesy. Some find it cliche, and for that reason they want no part of it whatsoever. Most despise the idea of being regaled with song, or even just having someone come by with a cake and a candle in it, so that all heads in the restaurant turn to see who it is who is being honored.
One of my friends is so leery of what he calls “Jerry Maguire” moments that he avoids putting himself in spots where they have any chance at all of occurring. What is a “Jerry Maguire” moment? A moment, as my friend defines it, where a private sentiment becomes a public performance. Of course, our culture is now flooded with these moments. Yesterday on Twitter I saw a pic of Brian Stelter of the NY Times on bended knee, proposing to his girlfriend. Facebook exists to turn the private into the public. In general, in the culture now, people are constantly performing, as if being on TV (or even approximate TV, in the case of a Kisscam at the basketball game) makes something real, or being publicly validated makes something worthwhile.
My friend is not a Percy-an, but it occurs to me, now, that this is a very, very Percy sort of critique. A new angle on “certification.”
POSTCARD FROM … RICHMOND:
We spent the long weekend in Richmond and had a chance to experience a number of your suggestions. After all, on a rainy weekend in a small city what better is there to do than to eat?
We started out the weekend on the highest point with a lunch at Peter Chang. If you had to pick a least favorite genre of food for my husband it would be “Chinese” — but he said he would eat there a few times a week if we lived closer after his first bite of the chicken with crunchy onions, chili pepper and cumin. While the mapo tofu was fiery and delicious, my son’s side of broccoli with brown sauce deserved my envy. Yum, and a bargain to boot!
Dinner was at the Roosevelt and we arrived as they unlocked the doors (with a sleeping toddler who skipped a nap in my husbands arms and a sleeping baby in mine) and ate with leisure and like two people who are holding ticking time bombs and a charming room soon to be full of well behaving adults. Our son awoke to a “snack” of crunchy homemade chips and pimpento cheese which also starred in one of my favorite vegetarian sandwiches ever — the friend green tomato, pimento cheese and pickle sandwich. Those crunchy green tomato pickles were most memorable. Topping it off, one of the more creative veggie entrees I’d seen in a while with a corn pancake topped with roasted roots, pickled cranberries and ricotta. It was time for a long walk in the rain.
Sunday morning we got dolled up and went to the Jefferson hotel for their champagne brunch. If you dine much with children (and I know you do, Todd), you know there are those magical meals when everyone is happy, no one needs coercion into this and that, and it all just goes off swimmingly. This was our day. The room is truly spectacular, ornate, over the top. The brunch is traditional, tasty, and full of people dressed up as well as many children. They serve the children sparkling apple in the champagne glasses and there are ice sculptures and ice cream and waffles stations and some entirely delicious breakfast and lunch entrees although nothing remarkable. People are up and moving about, chatting, and the children can get out of their chairs without notice. And the fresh squeezed juice, tea, champagne, flow oh so freely…
In complete contrast Monday breakfast brought us to the Lamplighter Coffee Roasters where there was no velvet to be seen, only lots of thick rimmed glasses and tattoos. But you were right — get one of those egg sandwiches (maple sriracha sausage with egg perhaps?) and a cup of coffee and you’ll be a happy camper.
Before departing we stopped at Lehja. The tomato coconut soup was just perfect, but my entree was prepared with chicken instead of paneer, and the second try it was shockingly salty….by the third try the kids and husband were wandering around the shopping outside so I enjoyed my meal alone and in peace. And they packed up the chicken one to go and didn’t charge me at all. Good on them for wanting to get it right and I would be back although to see what else could cover their richly spiced rice.
As always, thank you for the suggestions and for taking the extra time to figure out what you would suggest to a family with small children!
Wow. You hit about half of my list!
I’m so glad that they largely lived up to expectations.
So glad, too, that I could contribute in part to your great getaway weekend.
And reading your descriptions makes me pine for that cumin chicken, that fried green tomato and pimento cheese sandwich, and that tomato coconut soup ..
HONORING SPECIAL OCCASIONS, CONT.:
“Also remember Kapnos is Greek and maybe just maybe giving a free dessert just isnt part of their culture for celebrating bdays” – wow. Just……wow. Really? If someone dropped a bomb like this on other racial or ethnic groups, you’d be up in arms over such an ignorant post. Glad to see ethnic stereotypes are alive and well (and not challenged). Not all of us own coffeeshops, btw.
Oh, I thought it was ridiculous. I just focused my response on the part I found more troubling/worrisome, in context.
I’m sorry if you thought I let something ignorant go unchallenged. I tend to think that a thing like that hangs out there on its own, dying a slow, twisting death and attracting ridicule. But maybe that’s just me. In any case — my apologies.
NOLA EATS, CONT.:
If you have time while you are in New Orleans, do yourself a favor and grab a cocktail and the shrimp and grits from Cafe Amelie. It’s on a quiet block of Royal St. in the Quarter. I had the good fortune to stumble in and I think it really deserves a shoutout!
Thanks for passing on the tip!
HONORING SPECIAL OCCASIONS, CONT.:
My mother and I were born a day apart, but we live far from one another and haven’t been able to celebrate our birthdays together since I was in high school. This year we were together in NYC having dinner at the original PJ Clarkes, and it happened to fall over our half birthdays.
We joked to our waiter, who had been friendly all night, that we were out celebrating. At the end of our meal, he brought out a drinking glass that had been decorated and had two straws inside, into which two lit candles had been placed. It was a cute touch — we certainly didn’t expect anything (two grown women don’t need to celebrate half-birthdays) but it was a thoughtful gesture (and our tip made clear we appreciated it).
I’ve been to restaurants that have “taken care” of us with celebratory desserts before, but it actually makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. Sure, we’re going out to celebrate, but the restaurant doesn’t owe us anything.
That’s a funny story, thanks for writing in.
I think that waiter did a wonderful thing, recognizing the moment, not going overboard, demonstrating that he was listening.
Because, really, that’s what matters, here. The listening.
Not the cake, or the chocolates, or the glass with candles in it. The listening.
Isn’t that what we’ve been talking about all along, without even talking about it?
To ask whether you’re celebrating an occasion — or taking in that information electronically via an impersonal program and subject fields — is to solicit a response. If that response is given, and it is not then answered in kind or in part, then it makes us feel not listened to.
I.e., communication has broken.
Thanks, everyone — a very lively, very interesting morning and early afternoon. As usual. I loved all the postcards and all the thoughtful comments on honoring an occasion. You’re a terrific bunch. You make these days fun.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[*missing you, TEK … *]